Wednesday 16 March 2011


Recently, at a Solemn Celebration of Mass on an occasion when it was not possible to procure a Deacon, one of the servers was sent out as a lector to chant the Epistle of the Mass instead of the Priest. In accordance with Liturgical tradition, at a Missa Cantata, any "tonsured cleric" may chant the Epistle, but he does not receive the Celebrant's blessing afterwards as the Subdeacon does, and he carries out this office wearing a cassock and surplice.

This got me to thinking about the text of the Apostolic Letter which supressed the ancient order of Readers in the Roman Catholic Church, and redefined it as one of many "ministries" which may be carried out by lay people. Ministeria Quaedam:

2. What up to now were called minor orders are henceforth to be called ministries.
3. Ministries may be assigned to lay Christians; hence they are no longer to be considered as reserved to candidates for the sacrament of orders.
4. Two ministries, adapted to present-day needs, are to be preserved in the whole Latin Church, namely, those of reader and acolyte. The functions heretofore assigned to the subdeacon are entrusted to the reader and the acolyte...
5. The reader is appointed for a function proper to him, that of reading the word of God in the liturgical assembly. Accordingly, he is to proclaim the readings from sacred Scripture, except for the gospel in the Mass and other sacred celebrations; he is to recite the psalm between the readings when there is no psalmist; he is to present the intentions for the general intercessions in the absence of a deacon or cantor; he is to direct the singing and the participation by the faithful; he is to instruct the faithful for the worthy reception of the sacraments. He may also, insofar as may be necessary, take care of preparing other faithful who are appointed on a temporary basis to read the Scriptures in liturgical celebrations. That he may more fittingly and perfectly fulfill these functions, he is to meditate assiduously on sacred Scripture. Aware of the office he has undertaken, the reader is to make every effort and employ suitable means to acquire that increasingly warm and living love and knowledge of Scripture that will make him a more perfect disciple of the Lord.
The Letter, having supressed the order of Reader, and re-conceived its functions as a ministry, goes on to describe at length the functions and qualities of an individual who might take on that ministry. In effect, the list of functions above preserves substantially the office of Reader while supressing the order: essentially, Readers still have an office to perform, but they do not require ordination to do so. The notion that the office can be stripped entire from the order rather flies in the face of a traditional understanding of orders that is common to both East and West, namely that an individual is set aside by ordination conferred by the Ordinary and placed in the order and hierarchy of clergy, and in special cases where an individual fulfills an office pertaining to an order to which he has not been ordained, the office is curtailed or adjusted in some way to show this. A cleric not-a-Subdeacon who acts as Subdeacon at Mass may not, for instance, wear the maniple or re-build the Chalice at the Ablutions, and I understand that Byzantine readers who receive a blessing to act as Subdeacons by the Bishop receive Communion outisde of the Altar.

In most modern Liturgies to which I've been subjected, it seems that the assumption that Readers appointed from the laity would be trained has been entirely lost. The readings from scripture at Mass or the Office have been reconceived as a valuable opportunity for "active lay involvement" in the liturgy and as such are treated as a commodity which should be gifted to an individual deemed to be in need of validation, regardless of how good they are at actually reading so as to be heard and understood. This commodification of the Sacred Liturgy as an opportunity for pushy lay people to perform is absolutely detrimental to Parish life.

Anglicans took a step in the right direction by instituting the office of Lay Reader. These individuals vest in choir dress and wear a distinctive blue scarf, and as such are clearly identifiable to the congregations they serve. They train for a number of years and receive the blessing and license of the Bishop....but why not ordination? Last time I checked they trained for three years and received weekly pastoral instruction, why are they still "Lay"?

Again, I wonder if it is slowly dawning on the Church in the 21st century that Christians in the early days actually knew what they were doing by ordaining doormen, readers, exorcists and acolytes. Our reader at the Solemn Mass described above was chosen because he could sing in tune and has no problems reading. It was not the performance of an individual, there was no hiatus while someone shuffled from a pew, trampling people en route. The reading was sung by a person able to do so, which is why we call it a Sung Mass in the first place. It was orderly and edifying and contributed to the greater act of worship that we were involved in. Do we still really think we don't need minor orders?

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your assessment entirely. In the Orthodox Church, I have found a much more functional approach to ordination. It is very simply the means whereby the Church calls upon God to bestow a particular charism or duty on a man for a particular service within its life. The way in which a person is set apart for a a particular role is through ordination - at its most basic level, that is simply what ordination is. This does not reflect a protestant or anti-sacramental view at all, for the life of the Church, particularly its liturgical life, is sacramental, and it is within this context that the setting apart takes place. The practice of divorcing function from order is one that I do not think ought to be encouraged but which, as with most things that transgress the norms of church life, may be done when there is necessity in particular circumstances.

    'I understand that Byzantine readers who receive a blessing to act as Subdeacons by the Bishop receive Communion outisde of the Altar.'

    Byzantine subdeacons receive communion outside the altar anyway. It is only those in major orders who receive within the altar. (The Diocese of Sourozh has a peculiar custom on this point which is far from normative as far as I have been able to ascertain.) However, there are occasions that highlight precisely your point. For instance, when the bishop leaves the altar to bless the people with the trikiri and dikiri, his attending subdeacons may pass through the Holy Doors with him, (something that subdeacons are not permitted to do under any other circumstances). However, laymen or readers blessed to serve as subdeacons must use the side doors. Unlike ordained subdeacons, they also may not touch the Holy Table or the Oblations Table, or anything upon them. I'm sure there are other instances.